Posted 8 December, 2011 by Alix Dunn

Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter on Power

Last week, Anne Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in the Atlantic summarizing a broad swathe of power theory. She used it to zero in on a framework to better understand the power derived from connectedness, comparing “relational” and “collaborative” powers. Slaughter’s distinctions are nuanced and manage to theoretically connect and compare sectors of traditional real-politic power and the surge of leaderless collaborative power. She argues for more integration of the concepts of the latter into the former.
It’s time we apply these concepts and insights to foreign policy, both analyzing what we see and prescribing policy options — much as the informal #FreeMona team did during Mona Eltahawy’s detention in Cairo. Nothing about collaborative power suggests that relational power — both hard and soft — doesn’t exist or isn’t important. But it’s only part of the story. Remember, drop by drop, water will wear away or wash away stone, sometimes far more quickly than we can imagine.
While Slaughter wisely includes the caveat that traditional power dynamics cannot be discounted in any analysis of the impact of collaborative power, she does not explore the impact of relational power on collaborative power. Two key components of the case study that she uses to illustrate her argument and several counter examples invite this analysis.As for the case study, first, Eltahawy is exceptionally well connected (in terms of both relational and collaborative power). She is an American citizen with a very large network; this network includes individuals like Slaughter herself.

Slaughter argues that collaborative power works at “broadening access to the circle of power” and that “Relational power is held by an individual, group, or institution in relation to, as the name suggests, another individual, group, or institution. Collaborative power, on the other hand, is not held by any one person or in any one place.”

But does collaborative power really broaden the access circles of influence; or does it simply surface a few individuals’ connection to circles of power by making advocacy on their behalf easier and more visible? Does it equally distribute relational power, or do hierarchical power structures found in relational power dynamics simply regenerate in new media environments?

While the force of collaboration requires many individuals to achieve critical mass, there are very few who possess the connectedness to marshal these resources and activate publics in the event of their arrest.

Secondly, Eltahawy’s release cannot be causally tied to this surge of social media attention. Several other protesters arrested on the same day were released in similar time frames, and her public profile clearly didn’t protect her from physical injury (both of her arms were broken). It is therefore unclear whether it was her connections with power circles (that would likely exist without her having 50,000 followers on Twitter), or the 50,000 followers on Twitter that contributed to her release. (It seems unlikely that the latter could exist without the former.) Or perhaps she was arrested haphazardly by a disorganized riot force and released just as haphazardly.

The case of Alaa Abdel Fatah is a clear counter example. Fatah has a reach similar to Eltahawy in the collaborative power landscape, significant media attention has been paid to his case, and yet he is still behind bars. The two main differences in these cases are related to traditional power dynamics — Eltahawy has American citizenship, Alaa does not; Alaa has been effectively supporting activism in Egypt for much longer than Eltahawy  and has had significantly more on-the-ground impact on Egyptian social movements.

The impact of media attention and its role in shifting power landscapes brought about by connectedness and collaboration is complex, and makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the role of collaborative power. Slaughter’s distinctions are valuable, but require considerable consultation with the rapid influx of new information, and traditional politics.

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